Editor’s Note: This week, the DVD of the movie “2016″ will be released. A key premise of the film is that Barack Obama has his own set of five “founding fathers” — five key people who shaped his worldview. This week, TheBlaze will examine one of those individuals each day. Yesterday we examined Frank Marshall Davis. Today we will explore the life of a man whose teachings may have influenced Obama to look with an excess of charity toward anti-Western forces both in college and beyond, Edward Said.
At 4pm ET our live BlazeCast featuring Editor-in-Chief Scott Baker and writer Mytheos Holt will focus on our examination of Edward Said. Feel free to join the live chat and submit questions!
“Since the time of Homer every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.”
“In every country, there are those who find different religious beliefs threatening; in every culture, those who love freedom for themselves must ask themselves how much they are willing to tolerate freedom for others…That is what we saw play out in the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world.”
In an article for this publication written early last month, conservative author Dinesh D’Souza argues, “Throughout his formative years and even later, Barack Obama sought out mentors who could teach him chapter and verse of the anti-colonial ideology. This is the ‘dream from his father’ that Obama refers to in his own autobiography. Since the father wasn’t around–having abandoned Obama at birth–Obama sought our surrogate fathers, and together they form a group I call ‘Obama’s founding fathers.’”
D’Souza identifies several individuals with that label, but one in particular stands out insofar as his connection to Obama, while it may be less personal than the others, may also explain some of Obama’s more puzzling actions since the attack last month in Benghazi: namely, the Palestinian radical writer and academic Edward Said. D’Souza describes Said this way:
Prior to his death in 2003, Said was the leading anti-colonial thinker in the United States. Obama studied with Said at Columbia University and the two maintained a relationship over the next two decades. Obama attended a Palestinian fundraiser in Chicago in 1998 in which Said was the featured speaker, and Obama also befriended Said’s protege Rashid Khalidi, who currently occupies the Edward Said chair of Arab Studies at Columbia.
Said wasn’t a mere academic; for a time, he served as a member of the Palestine National Council. In this capacity he worked closely with Yasser Arafat. Said has been photographed throwing rocks at Israel to symbolize his support for armed resistance against the Jewish state; one Jewish magazine dubbed him a “Professor of Terror.”
While Said was hired by Columbia to teach literature, his main interests were always political. We see this in the titles of his books: Culture and Imperialism, The Question of Palestine, and The Politics of Dispossession. He was a vehement critic of the United State and an even-more-vehement critic of Israel. America, Said argued, is a genocidal power with a “history of reducing whole peoples, countries, and even continents to ruin by nothing short of holocaust.”
Edward Said (Photo Credit: Biography.com)
D’Souza’s indictment of Said himself is a powerful bit of intellectual polemic. However, questions remain – just how much was Obama connected to Said? What did Said actually believe? And how might Said’s views have influenced Obama? These questions, like so many related to Obama’s past, have frustratingly muddled answers. However, the evidence can be laid out without much trouble.
Obama’s connection to Said is probably the most dubious of his various “Founding Fathers.” That’s not to say Said was an unimportant figure in Obama’s life, but unlike people who Obama did explicitly rely on for personal aid (Bill Ayers), or who influenced him in childhood (Frank Marshall Davis), Said lacks the visceral personal connection of his peers. Indeed, it’s arguable that the real “Founding Father” is less Said himself than his successor at Columbia, Rashid Khalidi, who has been well-documented as a close friend of Obama’s.
That’s not to say that Said and Obama never interacted. Even the Leftist website The Daily Kos admits that Obama did take at least one course with Said while he was at Columbia (where Said was a professor):
First, D’Souza notes that “Obama studied with Said at Columbia University.” OK. In David Remnick’s The Bridge we are informed that Barack Obama did indeed take a class in modern fiction from Said. We’re also informed that Barack Obama wasn’t that impressed, if the interviewee is credible.
So Obama did sit in Said’s classroom at Columbia. Beyond that, he has been documented to have attended a 1988 fundraiser hosted by the Arab-American Action Network where Said was the keynote speaker, and to have sat at the same table as Said. However, beyond these two anecdotes, there is little evidence of a personal connection between Obama and Said.
By contrast, Obama’s relationship with Khalidi is easily proven. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times has reported that Obama spoke at a banquet honoring Khalidi and was apparently Khalidi’s “frequent dinner companion.” Their basis for this is a video showing Obama’s speech honoring Khalidi which the Times has declined to release to the public, citing confidentiality concerns.
However, that is not the only evidence of a connection between the two. Obama himself described Khalidi as a “former neighbor and university colleague” on his web site in 2008. Khalidi hosted a fundraiser for Obama in 2000. The two are apparently no longer in close contact, and Obama claims not to share Khalidi’s views on Israel (about which more later), but there’s little doubt that Khalidi would have had an opportunity to peddle Said’s ideas to his “frequent dinner companion.”
As for Khalidi’s connection to Said, that too is murky. Khalidi holds a chair at Columbia University endowed in Said’s name, and shares Said’s high level of sympathy with the Palestinian people. He also spent some time teaching at Columbia University, and was likely a colleague of Said’s, though there is little evidence to link them as close associates. However, given Columbia University’s reputation for hosting Said-style radicals on its Middle Eastern Studies faculty, the odds of someone who is not such a radical holding the chair endowed in Said’s name there is, to say the least, unlikely.
So what did Said actually believe? To answer that, one has to turn to Said’s most famous work – the 1978 book “Orientalism.” What did Said argue in this book? To quote one of his defenders over at Kos:
Now, where Said’s treatment of Orientalism is provocative and in my opinion most powerful is in his recognition of the symbiosis among policy, science and popular public imagination, what Said denotes above as ‘the corporate institution.’ The core notions binding these three realms were: 1) the fundamental otherness or exoticism of the East, an otherness essentialized to the opposition of Eastern stasis versus Western vitality; 2) the natural and scientifically demonstrable superiority of the latter over the former; and 3) the privileged position of the Western construct of the East over actual Eastern narratives of their own cultural histories. Orientalism was in essence a Western cultural project to appropriate the East, a manifestation less of substantive knowledge of the East than of the production of knowledge to justify a will to govern the East.
Let me boil all of this down to a single statement: we are the inheritors of a two-century project to manufacture an idea of a naturally and necessarily inferior East in order to rationalize the exercise of Western power upon the East.
A less kind way of putting this thought – that the West could not avoid being racist in describing the history of the Middle East, and thus only Middle Eastern people could write that history – was expressed by Said’s longtime intellectual opponent, the British-born historian of Islam Bernard Lewis, who scorned Said’s ideas as springing from a brand of “intellectual protectionism.” From a description of Lewis’ scholarship:
His engagement in these controversies set the scene for his confrontation with the Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said. In 1978, Said publishedOrientalism, which argued that the modern study of Islam in the West had evolved as a tool of imperialist domination, and that the West’s pursuit of knowledge had conspired with its pursuit of power. Orientalism, effectively a form of racism, had misrepresented Islam as static, irrational, and in permanent opposition to the West.
Lewis maintained that the development of Orientalism was a facet of Europe’s humanism, which arose independently of, and sometimes in opposition to, imperial interests. Islamic studies, after neutralizing the medieval religious prejudice against Islam, had been an important arena of discovery and achievement. Lewis rejected the view that only Muslims, Arabs, or their political sympathizers could write the region’s history: he called this “intellectual protectionism.” A combination of curiosity, empathy, competence, and self-awareness was the only prerequisite for the writing of “other people’s history.”
Lewis, incidentally, was brought in to consult with the Bush administration after September 11 on how best to deal with the culture of the Middle East. Said, meanwhile, was a member of the Palestine National Council. Rather a wide gulf in terms of sympathies is clearly at work between the two. Said, for his part, held something of a hostile view of the United States, as he sniffed in his 1993 book “Culture and Imperialism” that “The history of other cultures is non-existent until it erupts in confrontation with the United States.”
For a fuller exposition of Said’s views from his own mouth, consider this video, which contains audio of him giving a lecture about “Culture and Imperialism”:
And this clip of him speaking “On Imperialism”:
So Said – and by extension Khalidi – most certainly advance a school of thought that is broadly anti-Western (or as they put it, “post-colonial”). But how might it have influenced Obama?
One interesting piece of information about Said’s views complicates the picture of him as a garden variety anti-colonialist in the mold of Barack Obama, Sr for the younger Obama to cling onto as a “Founding Father.” That is, he was concerned almost entirely with the Middle East’s resistance to colonialism, either of the intellectual or political variety. The struggles of African leaders like Obama, Sr would have been incidental to this overriding concern. However, that’s not to say that Said would have brushed off those concerns if confronted with them. Given the general approach of Leftist thinkers like Said, who frequently view all “oppressed” peoples as connected to each other in the struggle against Western rapaciousness, it’s not hard to imagine Said or someone like him encouraging a young Obama to adapt some of Said’s views about the Middle East to fit Obama’s own situation.
Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, given recent events, even if Obama did not apply Said’s lessons to his own life, the seeds of those lessons may still be noticeable in Obama’s policy today. It could certainly explain the notable frustration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the Obama administration’s persistent refusal to back Israel in an increasingly tense face-off with Iran. More ominously still, it may explain the Obama administration’s puzzling insistence that an anti-Islamic video was at fault for the Arab crisis currently sweeping the Middle East. Certainly, followers of Said would have every reason to reflexively blame the West for protests at American embassies, rather than making the more simple logical leap to blaming terrorism.
This reflexive blame would be even more enticing for a follower of Said given what allegedly caused the attack – namely, a video made by a Western critic of Islam which portrays the Middle East and Islam itself as backwards, ugly places that not only tolerate sexual slavery, pedophilia and rampant religiously motivated brutality, but actively celebrate them to the point of making a Prophet out of a supposed perpetrator of all three. The Youtube video in question, “The Innocence of Muslims,” is almost a textbook example of what Said himself was most enraged by in his scholarship – namely, Westerners imposing their value system as a lens by which to judge the actions of Middle Eastern culture as somehow barbaric. Of course a follower of Said’s system would blame a video like that rather than believe legitimately barbaric terrorist groups are involved, for in Said’s system, finding the cause for Middle Eastern violence really is a case of, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying Western eyes?”
But don’t take our word for it. Just listen to Said’s criticism of the United States’ foreign policy, given in an April 2003 interview with the Arab Magazine Al-Ahram Weekly:
My strong opinion, though I don’t have any proof in the classical sense of the word, is that they want to change the entire Middle East and the Arab world, perhaps terminate some countries, destroy the so-called terrorist groups they dislike and install regimes friendly to the United States. I think this is a dream that has very little basis in reality. The knowledge they have of the Middle East, to judge from the people who advise them, is to say the least out of date and widely speculative.
Looking at this passage, it is not difficult to see the roots of a political doctrine that, afflicted by a stubborn refusal to find Middle Eastern culture wanting, celebrates the rise of politicians like Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi as somehow being “moderate” despite their demonstrable commitment to an ideology that has death in the service of Islam as its highest goal, and their idolization of men who use religion as an instrument of death and terror.
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